A lost poem by Vladimir Nabokov, written from the perspective of Superman as he laments the impossibility of having children with Lois Lane, has been published for the first time.
The Man of To-morrow’s Lament appears in this week’s Times Literary Supplement. In it, Nabokov, whose son loved the Superman comics, writes in the voice of the Man of Steel. He imagines the hero walking through a city park with Lois, forced to wear his glasses because “otherwise, / when I caress her with my super-eyes, / her lungs and liver are too plainly seen / throbbing”.
Nabokov’s Superman goes on to mourn how although he is in love, “marriage would be murder on my part” because his euphemistic “blast of love” could kill his would-be wife. Even if her “fragile frame” survived, he ponders, “What monstrous babe, knocking the surgeon down, / would waddle out into the awestruck town?”
Nabokov sent the poem, which contains allusions to Hamlet, to the poetry editor of the New Yorker in June 1942, just a few years after he had arrived in the US from occupied France, explains Russian scholar Andrei Babikov in the TLS. Warning that he was experiencing “most horrible difficulties and distress in wielding a language new to [him]”, and that the poem was somewhat “risque” in the middle, Nabokov asked if the New Yorker might consider paying him “a honorarium as adequate as possible to my Russian past and my present agonies”.
But the author of Lolita, which would be published 13 years later, was rejected. The New Yorker’s poetry editor Charles Pearce told him that “most of us appear to feel that many of our readers wouldn’t quite get it”, and agreed with Nabokov’s feelings about “the problem you foresaw about the lines in the middle of the poem”.
“Pearce could not have imagined that the New Yorker’s refusal to publish perhaps the world’s first poem about Superman might mean that the poem would never appear anywhere. Neither could he foresee that his contributor, who wrote ‘pretty wonderful stuff’, would by the late 1950s become a world-famous writer, a teasing riddle for astute readers and connoisseurs of his art, and that this rejected poem from 1942 would become one of the missing pages of his creative biography,” writes Babikov.
The source of the poem, he reveals, is the cover of the comic Superman No 16, which shows Clark Kent and Lois Lane in a city park looking at a statue of Superman. Even Lois’s comment at the end of the poem – “Oh Clark, isn’t he wonderful!?!” – is taken from the cover, including the punctuation.
“The park’s yellow sky, as seen on the cover, likewise captures Nabokov’s attention as his unlucky hero, contemplating his own inadequacy, ponders thus: ‘no matter where I fly, / red-cloaked, bluehosed, across the yellow sky, / I feel no thrill’,” writes Babikov, who found the poem in a folder in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. “Nabokov’s unpublished poem lay in this folder for nearly 80 years, breaking out at last – as Superman himself would – to see the light of day.”